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Old Crow Medicine Show Avoids Beachfront Manifesto, Seeks Youthful Audience

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Less than five years ago, Old Crow Medicine Show was a band on the verge of collapse. But a few lineup changes and a renewed sense of purpose have seen the group climb to new heights, including membership in the Grand Ole Opry and a Grammy award.

One thing that has remained consistent throughout the group's career has been its commitment to creating music that makes people think --- not just make them dance.

KMUW's Jedd Beaudoin recently spoke with one of the band's founding members and has more...

Speaking with Old Crow Medicine show co-founder Ketch Secor, you might get the idea that his band is among those leading a charge to reclaim country music, to snatch it from the jaws of the light rock sounds that have all but entirely swallowed the genre over the last few decades. But returning country to its origins is not entirely possible.

Time and technology take their toll on art. And so Secor and his bandmates aren’t seeking to recreate a bygone era as much as they’re hoping to co-exist with this contemporary style and maybe raise the consciousness of music listeners along the way.

“I think country music is something that’s meant to be messed around with. It’s not cultural preservation. It’s not the Gettysburg battlefield. It’s an art form,” he says, speaking via telephone from the band’s tour bus somewhere in Florida. “It’s supposed to shape shift and change with the times. It just so happens that culturally it’s a reflection of some pretty stale times. You leaf through USA Today and wonder why country is so milquetoast. It’s just a lot easier to get all your buddies together and go down to the beach and do Jell-O Shooters than it is to talk about Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore, Maryland, bombs falling on Afghan villages.”

Secor pauses for a moment, then continues, “Wouldn’t you rather just go to the beach with your friends, listen to Luke Bryan and get a tattoo of some animal on your bicep? Or barbed wire theme on your pecks? There’s a kind of healthy delusion to it. The stuff that’s going on is really severe. I don’t think that country music wants to watch the polar ice cap melt. It’s a honky tonk kind of thing. Jamboree. I can’t really blame it for wanting to sing a party song.”

Talk turns for a moment to the more rebellious nature of country music in the past, including the late Bill Monroe who, although part of the country music institution today, was once dangerously close to the edge.

“It’s hard to imagine someone talking about Bill Monroe as a punk rock kind of guy or that a punk rocker wears a cowboy hat as big as his. But when you think about it here’s a hillbilly boy from West Kentucky—before the Rural Electrification Act—and he’s playing black music,” Secor notes, his words punctuated with slight pauses for emphasis. “That’s heavy. He’s only three generations removed from slaveholding. He’s picking up black music—which is jazz. And he’s playing it in a hillbilly style. That in itself is a fairly revolutionary act.”

Secor sees the success of his friend Darius Rucker as reinvigorating for mainstream country. Rucker had a major hit in 2013 with Old Crow’s “Wagon Wheel.”

“He talks so much about the song, which is our song, and he’s sharing it with, for example, kids at the hospital at St. Jude’s. To know that there is this other person out there who is spreading this message, is a powerful force,” Secor says. “We’re really pleased that mainstream country has at least had to reckon with us. And that, in a way, we kind of armed mainstream country with a powerful tool which smokes all those songs about going to the beach. It kind of flips their motorboat.”

Secor has been known to take music to schools and libraries—an old folk tradition—and one that he sees as important in allowing the music to continue and thrive.

“It’s all music of the people. It belongs in the nursing homes, in the daycare centers, and in the research hospitals. It belongs in homeless shelters, in belongs in audiences of shut-ins, it belongs on the curb, it belongs under bridges. It’s like spring water. It’s just kind of bubbling through the American landscape, and where it comes out people gravitate,” he says. “It’s a responsibility too.”

And despite his rebellious streak and his populist ideals, he is concerned with a specific demographic - though one you might not first guess.

“You’ve gotta share this stuff with children,” he says. “If you’re not making music for kids, then what’s the point? Those are the ears that are most impressionable. It’s not that 18-year-old girl out there who’s shaking it. It ain’t that old folkie that’s watching you and remembering the Chad Mitchell Trio. It’s that great grandchild they left at home with the sitter. If you can get to that kiddo, then your songs might have a chance of sticking around a while.”

Old Crow Medicine Show performs Monday evening at The Cotillion. The band’s Grammy Award-winning album Remedy is out now.